When I first started going to theatre in my teens, I loved attending post-performance discussions and special seminars and panels about plays. They were my education, my chance to learn from artists about how and why they did what they did. I was so fond of the form, that I began moderating these kinds of talks at my college performing arts center when I was only 19, leading off with JoAnne Akalaitis and Athol Fugard in my first year. Once I began working at theatres, I’d pitch in when a literary manager or dramaturg was overcommitted, and translated events like this into the new form called podcasting in 2004, ultimately hosting or co-hosting 325 artist conversations under the banner of “Downstage Center.” This coming weekend, I’ll travel to Philadelphia to do a post-performance chat with Terrence McNally on Sunday and a full evening with Bill Irwin the next night.
So it probably won’t surprise you when I say that, as a result of my access, I tend not to go to many pre- and post-show events anymore. I’m still completely committed to their value, which is why I happily moderate them when invited. But for me, when I am merely an audience member, the sense of discovery is not what it used to be. The fact is, they’re not geared for me and other working professionals. They’re designed for the audience at large, those who rarely if ever get to walk through theatre doors marked “staff only” or have their name on a list at the stage door.
So I was a bit surprised at my own reaction recently when a paper flyer inserted into a program at a show I was seeing proved uncharacteristically effective on me. It wasn’t anything special, but it invited the audience to gather at a nearby restaurant, just one block away, after the performance to talk about the show, saying such conversation was a feature whenever the play is performed. The fact that it was a minute’s walk away made sense: the theatre’s lobby is too small for any events and if the audience had been invited to stay in their seats, there would have been a formality to the proceedings, and obviously the theatre was seeking something less structured.
I don’t know why this particular invitation appealed to me. Perhaps it was because I was attending alone and I thought I might want to at least listen to what others thought afterwards, even if I chose to hang back at the fringes. I tucked the flyer back into the program and figured I’d make up my mind after the performance.
The show ran less than two hours. I had nowhere particular I had to be and I was certainly intrigued and troubled by the play. So I gathered my things, I stopped in the theatre’s rest room, I lingered on the sidewalk to overhear what other patrons were saying as they exited. Finally, I walked to the designated site.
Entering, I wondered at first if the restaurant was closed, though I spotted two tables at the back with patrons. The entire front section, a mix of tables and surprisingly open space by the bar was empty, save for some solicitous restaurant workers who exhorted me to sit. They generously reminded me that my ticket would afford me a small discount off any order. “I’m going to see if others come to talk,” I said, “Let me wait until others get here.”
No one else came.
I waited for 15 minutes, and not a single customer of any kind entered the restaurant, let alone fellow theatregoers. No staff from the theatre turned up either, and I stood there awkwardly, not wanting to take a table and then disappoint a server when I failed to order, my interest in hearing about or discussing the play waning as I pondered the reasons for my solitude.
Admittedly, the cast for the show was small, they were in previews and it was a two show day, so it was unreasonable to expect any of the actors to appear. Maybe after a few evening performances they might stop by, but not today. The show was not a premiere, the press was already coming (so the show was no doubt frozen), and the production team may have all moved on to their next ventures, or were simply enjoying some deserved time off. But despite a venue, admittedly a small one, which was full for the performance, I was the only person who chose to answer the invitation. I had decided, to use a buzzword, to “engage” – and no one else who had shared the prior couple of hours with me saw fit to do the same.
I was so disconcerted, that following my 15 minute wait, I retraced my walk from the theatre, eyeing each passerby to see whether they held a program, or the telltale colored paper flyer. I kept looking back over my shoulder for as long as I could to see if anyone was entering the restaurant. I would have doubled back. When I got to the theatre, the sidewalk was clear, and only two couples remained in the small lobby. So I went home and I have yet to discuss the play with anyone, or hear it discussed.
I have purposely avoided saying the name of the play and the theatre because I don’t write to blame either or both for my experience. Perhaps it was a fluke, and crowds have gathered at every other performance. I appreciated the effort to engage me, even if it left me feeling like a child who realized no one was coming to his birthday party, or a suitor stood up by a blind date, foolish and alone. I would have felt worse, actually, if just one other person had shown up, since then I would have been forced to talk, not merely to observe, to stave off their potential disappointment.
Maybe once the audience was released from the building, the sense of community engendered by a shared experience completely dissipated. Maybe the relatively comfortable weather after a cold snap was too inviting to miss. Maybe the 20 to 25 college-aged students who appeared to be there as a group would take up the play in class and consequently saw no need to discuss it sooner. There were plenty of variables, and unless I choose to visit that restaurant after a number of performances, I’ll never be able to analyze what contributed to my experience.
Because I am not the average audience member, this episode was ultimately a reminder about how difficult it can be to engage an audience beyond the time they spend seeing a show. I wonder: how many newsletters and program notes have I written or edited that have gone unread, how many people have left partway through talks I’ve moderated because of my failings rather than other commitments, how many people have actually listened to the end of every podcast? For all the efforts towards deepening the experience, about continuing the conversation, about creating a context for artistic work, what is the alchemy of engagement, and is it different not only for every theatre, but for every play? Or perhaps, sometimes, is it that a play is simply enough and we would all rather be alone in our thoughts?
For this play, at this theatre, at that performance, I will never know. But I’ll always wonder exactly why I was left unengaged and contemplate how I and others can do better.
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It is not my intent to criticize or embarrass the theatre or show discussed above by naming them. In that spirit, comments attempting to do so will be deleted, but I welcome your comments on what I experienced and how you and others might engage audiences – or what engages you.